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It took only a couple of moments for Gene Edwards, through his wonderful little book, When The Church Was Led Only By Laymen, to move me to dismiss everything I had ever been taught about church polity. Much of what follows here is drawn from that book and from my own meditations on the subject since reading it many years ago.
I feel the need to write on the subject myself because Gene primarily addressed those who already understood and accepted much of what he claimed; his audience evidently comprised men from his churches, or those who had already become interested in attending one of them, myself included. In his particular style and focus I fear Gene missed many of my brothers in the more traditional churches who have not had the privilege of seeing what he and his audiences have seen. I hope in these next few pages to distil the relevant facts as I have come to appreciate them, and then to propose an action plan in response.
In the Bible it is written: “Which when the brethren knew, they brought him down to Caesarea, and sent him forth to Tarsus.” This simple text in Acts 9:30 changed my life. When I saw what it contains, everything I had been taught about church polity vanished like vapor before it … and I have never been the same.
An entire world opened up to me … a lost world that still remains largely unexplored. I have tasted somewhat of it from time to time, but remain quite unsatisfied and hungry for more. I cannot describe this world in detail, sad to say, but what little I can see is simply amazing to me. I pray that we may begin to see more of it together here. I pray that we can get some of it back in our lifetime. I think it may a key to lasting revival in the church, perhaps the key.
Let me begin by admitting that I had already memorized the entire book of Acts before seeing what I now see in this text. I admit this in order emphasize the fact that one can be intimately familiar with the Bible and still miss a great deal of its message. Before hearing Gene’s thoughts on the topic, I saw what most anyone reading the text probably sees: a simple historical fact about how Paul ended up in Tarsus, just a little side detail in the overall narrative with little practical significance. We read over it without really noticing what it implies.
But after really thinking about what this little text implies, and after having been equipped with a more complete perspective derived from a simple, guided overview of the rest of the New Testament, let me tell you, without a rigorous foundation for the moment, what I now see in this text. I will show you why I see these things before we are done, but for now, please, just come along with me.
I see … brothers: men, common men, laymen, uneducated men, illiterate men. Not apostles, but having apostles … inconspicuously … among them. Not pastors, but among pastors. Not elders, but alongside elders … as equals. Men … brothers … leading, handling a real crisis, together.
No one name is mentioned, which is no accident. No elite among these men, no clear, obvious leaders when one looks on them from the outside. The differences between their ranks, if there are any real differences, would take days or even weeks to perceive. Walking among them initially, you could not tell brother from apostle or pastor.
I see men who know one another like family … and still love each other. I see men who have lived together, who understand one another. Men who have laughed together, cried together, helped each other, failed each other, fought each other, forgiven each other. I see men who appreciate one another’s strengths … and know how to humbly consider each other’s weaknesses. I see men who now know better than to try and rule over one another.
I see men who have spent a lot of time together, outside of meetings and in countless informal gatherings, talking, seeking, sharing, growing. I see men who have worked together, doubted together, played together, prayed together, and bled together. I see men who now trust each other, that have each other’s backs; men that stand together.
I sense no bickering, no jealousy, no strife, no glory-seeking among these brothers. They have worked through all of that childishness in lesser times before. They have been prepared together, handcrafted into a spiritual force by the Spirit of God, to deal with such things as they face in Paul … as a unit, as a body, with singleness of mind and purpose.
I see a brotherhood forged in the fires of persecution and trial, moved by the Spirit, and empowered as a body by Christ Himself.
And now they work together, as one, to save a life … perhaps many lives, including their own. They are in a perilous time — a time entirely without precedent.
They are moving with authority, an authority not conferred by men, but recognized by all who walk with them.
They move with precision, with clarity, with wisdom … and with success.
Now, before we get to how I see all that in this little text, just think for one more moment.
What would you not give, my dear brother, to walk beside men like that … as one of them?
What would you not give, my dear sister, to live among men like that?
How does one see so much in such an obscure text? It is not, I pray, presumption; it is implied from a thoughtful consideration of how the New Testament epistles are written. Paul and Peter wrote many letters to the churches with a very conspicuous property. Until someone points it out to you, if you are like me, you will never see it.
The Protestant Reformation recovered the gospel: salvation by grace through faith. This was a tremendous milestone in Church history. Yet Roman Catholicism had departed far from the Scriptures in a many areas which went untouched by the Reformation. Subsequent reform movements attempted to address some of these errors, but many core erroneous doctrines and practices remain entrenched in evangelical circles. Much of what remains still needs to be restored to the biblical pattern.
One such area is evidently Church Polity: the way a church is organized, how it is lead and how it functions. One can see this gap in a casual reading of the New Testament. We see nothing of what we recognize as a church today: no elegant buildings, no liturgy, no pastor-lead services, no clergy-laity distinction.
In fact, if we are honest with the text, we do not really even see any kind of clergy defined at all. The concept of pastor is mentioned in passing once (Ep 4:11), and the office of bishop, as well as how to determine what kind of men qualify for the office, is mentioned twice. (1Ti 3:2-7, Tit 1:7-9) Yet not a single bishop is mentioned by name in the entire text of the New Testament: not a single one (Timothy and Titus are called bishops in post scripts, but not in Scripture itself). Further, the duties of this office are never mentioned, much less described, and we never see any individuals occupying this office acting in any manner whatsoever in any context throughout the New Testament.
This may come as quite a surprise, given the way that most all churches throughout Church history have functioned, with clearly defined and prominent leaders. The pattern continues to the present day. Given the very scant mention of such a concept in the Bible, one wonders if there has perhaps been a bit of a twist, a bit of a perversion, introduced into our understanding of Church government.
Even though great reformers after Luther attempted to address Church Polity, it is evident (to me at least) that they were unable to see the original biblical pattern. Steeped in cultures that understood only hierarchical authority, they interpreted the Bible through that lens. As a result, what we see today in most western denominational churches differs vastly from what the Bible describes.
If we carefully consider Christ’s instruction regarding how to handle interpersonal conflict between professing believers, we can clearly see His prescription for church polity. “Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.” (Mt 18:15-17)
In providing a prescription for managing personal offenses, being the most common and critical challenge to the unity and purity of His body, the church (Col 1:24), Christ is telling us how to handle all kinds of corruption among professing believers; whether it be a personal offense or misunderstanding, a divisive spirit promoting destructive teachings, or blatant sin, this pattern is evidently applicable in every case.
The steps are quite simple, and also very, very clear.  Try to resolve the matter privately.  If that fails, involve one or two more trusted, impartial believers as witnesses to: [a] ensure there is no misunderstanding, and [b] provide an opportunity to settle the matter discretely.  If that fails, then take the case to “spiritual court,” the ultimate spiritual authority, for judgement: tell the church. The verdict of this authority is considered binding and final; those who do not submit to it are to be treated as outsiders, as unbelievers.
Who or what is this final authority, deciding all spiritual matters impacting the health and well-being of the body of Christ? It is the ekklesia, meaning assembly or congregation. (1Co 11:18) It is not a pastor, or a small group of elders, but the entire body of brothers within a local spiritual community who regularly meet together to edify one another. A unified brotherhood is the only type of spiritual authority defined in the context of the local church; no other type of church polity model can be consistent with this text.
Those preferring some type of hierarchical leadership, elevating one man or a small group to exercise spiritual authority over others, must presume that “ekklesia” is merely used symbolically here, that it refers to leaders who are authorized to speak on behalf of the congregation. Yet even then, to be honest with the text, we must still place ultimate authority in the assembly itself, expect that the brotherhood is informed of the case and has a unified opinion of it, or such leadership could not intelligently speak on its behalf. To maintain our integrity in light of Christ’s instruction, we must in any case acknowledge the centrality and spiritual authority of a unified brotherhood.
A Closer Look at Paul
Anyone writing a letter to influence an entire congregation of believers in our day would certainly be expected to address all communication through the pastor of the church and work directly and closely through him (or her!). Especially when dealing with a controversial subject, or with ungodly conduct or false doctrine, it would be entirely inappropriate, offensive … even subversive … to work apart from or outside the clergy. Today, it really would be a serious breach of etiquette, and as well as a personal affront to the leadership of any church to do so.
However, when the Apostle Paul wrote letters to the early churches, he did not address each letter to the pastor of the church. Paul did not even address his letters to the elders of each church. In fact, if you look carefully, in many of Paul’s letters, not only are leaders not addressed, they are not even mentioned! In fact, most of Paul’s letters, which are filled with clarification on controversial topics and instructions about how to manage church problems, have no reference to any kind of pastors, elders, or leaders of any kind.
With our modern concept of church in mind, along with its esteemed clergy, you’d think that the New Testament must be simply chock full of references to pastors, bishops and the like. You would also think that church doctrine was developed and managed by these leaders, that they did most all of the teaching, and that they dominated church assemblies. You would think that the letters to the churches would be addressed to these men and that they would be the center of attention. But it is not so.
Paul uses the word pastors only once in all of his articles: in Ephesians 4:11. The overall text in Ephesians 4 describes several kinds of men fitted with particular gifts to equip the saints for the work of the ministry, which is the perfecting of the saints, edifying (encouraging, strengthening, building up, nourishing, healing, rebuking, challenging, etc.) the body of Christ. (Ep 4:12) These gifted men were not in themselves positioned by God to perform all of this ministerial work, but are provided by God to the Church to help equip all of the saints to engage in this work.
This particular gift of pastors, as one may deduce from the word describing their gift, were men fitted to shepherd others in the church, to look after their spiritual welfare, to mentor and disciple and groom others. But, interestingly, Paul never calls anyone, in any epistle, a pastor; he never mentions a particular pastor … ever.
We might turn then to 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 and note the qualifications for the office of bishop in some detail, but the role and function of the office itself is never actually defined, and there is not a single reference to any particular bishop in the New Testament; bishops are not mentioned in the context of the life of the church in any fashion whatsoever. These bishops are not pastors or elders per say, the terms and roles are evidently not interchangeable.
The concept of elder is mentioned many times in Scripture (Gen 50:7, Ex 3:6, 19:7, Lev 9:1, Num 11:16, De 19:12, 21:4, 22:17-8, Mt 26:47, Ac 14:23. 15:4, 20:17, 1Ti 5:1, 17, Tit 1:5, Ja 5:14), and elders are distinctly addressed as having a key leadership role in the church in 1 Peter 5. This is striking since no distinct office of elder is ever defined or described in the Bible, and no qualifications for being an elder are ever mentioned. In fact, it is evident from the whole of Scripture that the term itself simply refers to the elderly men in the congregation or local community (1Ti 5:1-2, 1Pe 5:5), and the contexts mentioning elders suggest that these men were generally the more influential members of the congregation. Certain among these elderly brothers were sometimes identified and officially recognized as bishops. (Tit 1:5-7) It seems that the older men of the congregation were assumed to be the more influential members and were innately endowed with a special care and oversight of the assembly. Even this, however, does not define an elder as having any kind of distinct spiritual authority over the other men in the congregation, or imply that they ought to be central in its various activities.
So, where did we get our modern-day emphasis on pastors and elders in the church? Where did we ever get the idea that an official body of clergy lead and run the church? Wherever we did get it, it appears that we didn’t get it from our Bible: the concept is not there.
What we do find, when we look at the text of the New Testament is a kind of leader that we know nothing about. Brothers are distinctly addressed 93 times in the Epistles. It is easy to look up the references and check this out. Paul addressed each of his letters to … the brothers. This is in stark contrast to how churches operate today, especially in the West, and this is no small thing. Let’s look at each of Paul’s letters again, and derive from Paul’s approach to the churches how they were organized and how they were lead.
To the Brothers
The letter to the Romans is addressed: “to all that be in Rome, beloved of God, called to be saints.” (vs 7) He is very quickly more specific: “Now I would not have you ignorant, brethren …” (vs 13) He begins chapter 2, “Therefore thou art inexcusable, O man …” Chapter 7 begins, “Know ye not, brethren …” Paul is addressing the men of the congregation. He does so 11 distinct times in this letter.
In writing to the brothers in Rome, Paul gives the men instruction in a number of difficult and controversial issues: he challenges both their legalism and their lawlessness, he explains the gospel and its implications in painstaking detail, he responds to those skeptical of God’s sovereignty, he encourages them all in suffering. What about the leadership of the Church of Rome in all this? Paul entirely ignores him, or them, whoever they were. They are never mentioned, not once.
In particular, Paul instructs the brothers in how to handle unruly church members: “Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them.” (16:17) Now, we can all appreciate the idea that identifying, marking out, confronting, and separating people from regular fellowship in a church congregation is one of the most difficult and messy tasks that anyone can possibly consider in a church. It is certainly no light thing. And … think about this carefully … Paul never addresses, or even mentions, any kind of church leadership throughout the entire book of Romans … not once. Why is this so?
Many of the things Paul wrote to the Romans are not easily understood … even today, as the Apostle Peter asserted years later in speaking of Paul’s articles in general: “As also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction.” (2Pe 3:16) Though Paul knew that many of the concepts in his letter to the Roman church would be difficult to interpret and understand, and that such misinterpretation would be very dangerous for the church, Paul did not address the letter, as many today would certainly expect him to address it, to the pastor, or to a group of elders, to allow them to sort through, filter, organize and control how his letter was received by the church. Instead, Paul wrote to … the brothers!
First Corinthians follows the same pattern. Paul writes to “the church of God which is at Corinth.” (vs 2) In verse 10, Paul writes, “Now I beseech you, brethren …” The pattern continues throughout the entire book.
Now, in this first letter to the church in Corinth, Paul is dealing with all kinds of messiness, conflict, discord, sin and problems of all kinds. The epistle is much more confrontational and challenging than is the letter to the Romans. Yet, how many times does Paul mention the leadership of this Corinthian church? Not once, the way we would think of it. There is no mention of any kind of church leadership whatsoever, not one mention throughout the entire book. Where are the leaders of this church? Why doesn’t Paul work through them?
Actually, Paul is working through the leadership of the church, we just can’t see it because we don’t have any idea how a church is really supposed to work. Paul directly addresses the brothers twenty times in this epistle, and mentions them as a group 8 more times. As far as Paul is concerned, the role of pastor or elder is not central in the process of receiving and incorporating the content of his letter into the life of the church. This is clear from the way Paul wrote each and every one his letters to the churches.
A Telling Prescription
These brothers in the Corinthian church are in community together as men without any concept of clergy. They have no distinct, visible, elite governing body to order and manage all of their chaos. They are a whole mess of backbiting, suing one another, fornicating and glorying in it … and Paul never does attempt to appoint a trusted man, or a group of men, over them and tell them all to submit to them. Paul does nothing of the sort. Instead, Paul challenges the community of men to come together in unity, in humility, and in love and to begin to sort things out properly themselves.
One particularly telling passage in all this mess, one that really opens the door to the dynamics of church life as God has intended it to be, must be 1 Corinthians 6:4. God’s prescription for their chaos, for their lack of unity, for their strife, is striking indeed. “If then ye have judgments of things pertaining to this life, set them to judge who are least esteemed in the church.” The implications of the injunction appear unthinkable when we meditate on what it actually implies.
The context of this instruction is a situation where some of the brothers were taking each other to court and suing one another for damages. These intense interpersonal conflicts were just the symptom of a much larger problem. There were divisions and factions among them (1:10-12); these men were vying for prestige and respect, looking for a place of power and influence and control over others. They were divided at the very core by their selfishness, and working in any kind of unity was quite beyond their reach.
In these most intense and public conflicts, Paul provides a prescription. Providing the prescription for the most important matters implies that the prescription was applicable to all matters of indecision and confusion. No other prescription for any other kind of problem is given to them as an alternative. The men are essentially told that they have two options:  resolve problems together as a team, in humility, love and unity, or  appoint the least esteemed men among them to settle the matter. (!) So, if these men couldn’t manage to agree together in a particular situation, come together on a matter of some kind, of any kind, and could not find unity among themselves about what to do, about how to proceed, then — rather than resorting to external governmental authorities to judge, or even turning to some internal leader that they all respected — they are instructed to:  identify among themselves those men that are the least esteemed, those considered the least qualified to make a proper decision in the matter, and  blindly agree to defer to the judgment of these men.
What a pleasant little wrench this one little passage throws into most every conceivable pattern of church governance taught in our seminaries today! It turns all of our thinking about “church” upside down and inside out. It upends and overturns the very best teaching in our theological schools on church polity.
What church today is run by its men? Not the pastors, not the deacon board, but the entire community of men as a whole. If such churches exist today, would they know who the least esteemed men among them are? What criteria would they use to determine this? If some group did happen to know who these men were, would they freely admit it? Once they did know, would they really obey Paul’s instruction and make these poor brothers their judges? Do you really think this is taught in our religious institutions? Dream on.
You talk about ripping the carpet out from under a bunch of folk, of bringing them low, of crying out in exasperation, “What do you all think you are doing!” Paul is gently screaming this to Corinth, and doing so without apology.
In reality, Paul is crying this out to all of us … God is saying the same thing to us all. At least Corinth was on the right road, playing in the right game, working with the right paradigm. Where are we? We are missing the boat entirely. We aren’t even in the ball park on this one. We have absolutely no idea how the church should be governed today, what it should look like. How could it be made more obvious?
Men don’t know who the least esteemed brothers in the church are unless they are regularly interacting together as a group of men, engaging with one another regularly and openly, and there are a few men among them that don’t generally say much, who stay out of the way and lay low. Whenever these men do speak up, and try to say something to the group, they may be ignored, shut down, or talked over and trampled on. They don’t fight back; they don’t have much respect from the other men. They are often marginalized, discounted, in fact … despised, which is the way that this Greek word exoutheneo is generally translated.
If you have a group of men that is so broken and unhealthy that they have a known set of least esteemed men in their midst, men who have been marginalized and set aside as of no account, then you have a group of men like there was in Corinth. And it is no surprise, whenever a bunch of egos get started, they generally start out like this. They have not yet worked through their issues, their insecurities, their blind spots. They have not yet learned to defer to one another, to lay down their ego and their pride, and love one another; they have not learned to walk in the Spirit with each other. In such a mess, God appoints the least esteemed in the church to be its unquestioned leaders, and this choice is made through the brothers themselves.
In my opinion, if this is the only acceptable leadership pattern of the Church, that it be run by its men, and if the men can’t pull together and lead the church with unity, that the only alternative is that the weakest and least respected men among them get to call all the shots, then it will not take long for the men of a congregation to figure out how to lead together in unity, to get their act straightened out, to begin to lay down their pride and their conceit and their selfishness and to begin to see God’s way for them.
If one insists on having someone in charge, then I guess here is where we find God’s prescription, a guide for selecting clergy, if you will. God’s provision is not elegant leadership, not educated, wise, trained leadership … but ignorant, weak, despised, broken leadership. In short, if we are going to insist on having clergy, a small subset of people who make the major decisions in a congregation, we have to pick them from among the men that we think are the least qualified for the job. In other words, to speak plainly: God doesn’t want a small group of men (or women) running his Church!! … He intends for His Church to be led by His men, the brothers, and in this process for all of them to conduct themselves in humility and love, seeking a unity among them all that reflects God’s kingdom and Spirit.
From this prescription we can also deduce the following: this very process of brothers coming together in unity is far more important to God than the actual decisions made in any particular scenario … which God would as soon hand off to those deemed least qualified to make them. In other words, God is more concerned about the polity of a church than the outcome of that polity, more concerned about how decisions are made than the decisions themselves. What occurs in the hearts of men who are being forged together in a brotherhood is far more important to God than the color of the carpet, the style of music, or even the exactness of some theological statement. A unified brotherhood is the only valid approach to church government that can be found in the Bible, and it is evidently very dear to the heart of God. To break it is to break the back of the Church and to strip her of her power.
We can continue in this way through all of the rest of the epistles, but we will find that the effort is redundant. Feel free. You won’t find anything different or new in the attempt. In doing so, we must then come full circle, come back to the book of Acts and look again at the passage with which we began.
A New World
When Paul was converted the early Church was rid of a terrible problem. But at the same time, in the same man, she was handed another, perhaps more difficult problem. Paul “made havoc of the church” (Acts 8:3) until he was gloriously converted, but afterward … he spake boldly in the name of the Lord Jesus, and disputed against the Grecians: but they went about to slay him. (Acts 9:28) The Church went from being terrified of this man (vs 26) to wondering how to protect both him and themselves from the backlash he was stirring up by his aggressive preaching of Jesus Christ among their fellow unbelieving Jewish brothers. What should they do? How should they handle it?
Which when the brethren knew, they brought him down to Caesarea, and sent him forth to Tarsus. (Acts 9:29) Well, when the men of the Jerusalem Church heard about the problem … they took action. They brought Paul down to Caesarea, a nearby port, bought him a ticket, put him on a boat, and sent him back to his home town. So what?
Well, the apostles, the leaders of the church in Jerusalem, are unmentioned in the text. Doubtless, the Twelve were present and had some influence in how this problem was resolved, but there is no indication that any of the Apostles took charge of the situation, provided any governing leadership, or told anyone what to do. No, it was the brothers who solved this problem, the community of believing men as a whole.
What is so revealing about the text, in describing what on the surface might seem like an ordinary event, is that what these men did, on close inspection, is not ordinary at all. Men don’t just up and do this kind of thing together, as a team, out of a vacuum, spontaneously. Men act as individuals like this all the time, but we seldom if ever see men acting like this as a group, especially without clearly identifiable, prominent leadership. It just doesn’t happen.
First, we have the amazing fact that solving such a problem was even a consideration for the men of this church. The very idea of a group of men even thinking about such a thing is completely foreign to the western mindset. What moves a community of men to consider the possibility of acting together, much less deciding together that they must act, and agreeing on what they should do and how it should be done? What dynamic even presents the very idea of an intervention, suggests it as a viable consideration to a group of men?
Men don’t function as a unit like this unless they are accustomed to doing so, unless they are trained up, taught experientially, unless they know one another and trust each other’s character in a pinch, unless they are used to doing these kinds of things together. How does a group of men get to the place where they can pull off something like this without a small group of elite men telling them all what to do?
Perhaps a group of men can pull off a picnic with their families, get the logistics worked out and have some activities planned without too much of a struggle, but – really now — handling a crisis of this magnitude, as a group? This is unthinkable. It is, in fact, miraculous. Men don’t act like this without clearly established leadership and an agreement among the rest of the men to yield to this leadership team with implicit obedience. But that is not what happened here … there is no indication in any account of the early church that any type of rigorous authority structure was in place among these men. In fact, it appears to have been just the opposite.
The simple implication of the text is that these men did this kind of thing regularly, and that they had been doing so for quite some time. They met regularly, in small groups and large ones, all of them, as equals, and discussed things that were a concern to them, of interest to them. They discussed problems, situations, scenarios … they came up with solutions to their problems … and they were in the habit of carrying out their plans … together.
These groups, these discussions could not have been consistently dominated by any clearly defined leadership that gave them order and direction. Had they been, the tendency would have been to stifle the energy and initiative of the men who were being lead, hindering their growth into a fully functioning maturity. It would have resulted in most of the men becoming largely passive and we would see the leaders acting with prominence within the group. But what we see is that all of the men participated as equals together in decision making and they carried the burden of responsibility for the congregation mutually … the direction of the congregation was not, in practice, delegated to a few of them but carried by each of them with care.
Further, the problem these men faced was both non-trivial and fraught with danger and risk. The church had never faced this kind of situation before: a converted Pharisee preaching Christ so effectively and boldly in their immediate community that Jewish leadership was deeply threatened. They had no precedent, no earlier pattern to follow. This situation was not for beginners … people’s lives were on the line. This was not a time to start trying to work together as a team … if these men weren’t already accustomed to solving problems together as a brotherhood, if they had not had a long history of working together in unity, they could never have done anything like what they did. If there were ever a time for the Apostles to jump in and take control of a situation for everyone’s benefit, this would seem like the time. They didn’t.
Finally, one has to admit that what these men decided to do, how they handled the problem, the solution they finally agreed upon, is not one that would be considered obvious. There were many other options available to the church. The most obvious being, “Trust God and wait it out.” God is in charge … Why should anything at all be done about it? Indeed, this kind of passivity is what most would prefer … unless your very own welfare is being threatened.
So why not call Paul into one of the brothers’ meetings and ask him to keep it down for a while? Point out to him that he is stirring up the Jewish leaders into an irrational frenzy, like a bear tearing into a bee hive, and thereby endangering the entire community. Just ask him to simmer down a little and take it easy. Sounds like a reasonable approach … until you get to know Paul a little. The man is simply not going to be quiet.
Barring that, seeing the writing on the wall, that persecution is coming to town and that the Jewish community has had plenty of witness of the Messiah already, then should they all pack up their bags and move on?
But who would have thought that the best answer was to convince Paul himself to leave? Leave because he is too zealous for Messiah? Because he is now, in his love for Messiah, dangerous? Dangerous for his knowledge of the Scriptures? For his uncanny ability to prove that Yeshua is indeed Messiah to anyone familiar with the Word who will listen? Who has the right to even mention this?
The brothers got together and talked about it. They prayed, they argued, kicked it around together, they worked through scenarios. And the twelve Apostles were certainly right there in the midst of the men, but they aren’t mentioned as coming up with the solution or even providing any significant role in the process. The brothers, together, became convinced of the wisdom of Paul’s leaving them. They were able to convince Paul as well, and got him a ticket home. They acted in unity, in authority, in power … and brought the churches rest throughout the entire region. (Acts 9:31) Evidently, they got it right.
Men don’t get to being like this in anything like what we call church today. But that’s what the Church knew back then, back when she was powerful, back when she was strong. Perhaps it’s no coincidence.
An Unspoken Life
The implication of a careful consideration of this text is that underlying this single act, an action carried out by a community of men without being organized and directed by a small elite group of leadership, exists an entire orientation and experience in what one might call Church Life, a life of which most Christians today know absolutely nothing. It is a life lived by believers in a community where the greatest among them thinks of himself as the servant of the rest of them. A spirit of humble deference pervades this community (1 Peter 5:5), no man usurps authority over another, no man commands another. Men do not seek power here, or respect, or prestige. Men in this community are respected not for their profession, their education, or their money, but for their humility, wisdom and godly character, a character that is understood experientially by their brothers in the context of regular, interactive, accountable relationships.
Brothers in such communities face a myriad of problems … together. In facing them together, in humility and wisdom and prayer … they learn to solve problems together. Sometimes they fail, but even in failure they grow and learn. They learn about themselves and they learn about each other, what each man is good at and what each, empowered by the Spirit, brings to the table for the rest of them. Men also learn their limits, what they each do not bring, even on their best day. These brothers are interdependent with each other in a responsible, engaged, intentional awareness that they are a body, they must function as an integral part of a living organism, connected to each other for a divine purpose, and all of them individually feel a sense of communal responsibility for the welfare of the whole.
Men in these settings meet together: they have brothers meetings . These meetings are sometimes formal and also often informal. There are regular meetings, and then there are the many other “meetings” occurring spontaneously in the context of simply spending time together. Men in these meetings bring up things that interest them, and things that are bothering them, things that concern them. They talk about life, about opportunities, about longings, about visions and goals. They hear each other out, they argue, they disagree, they get honest with each other. Men in these relationships don’t hide … because in community like this everyone knows you … there is no hiding. Men also get their feelings hurt, and they hurt each other. They get mad, they are misunderstood, their rough edges wear on each other … and they work through it. Men confront each other, and they forgive each other, and they go on stronger than before.
We see the spirit of mutual responsibility for the direction of the church evident in the way that brothers conducted themselves in the assemblies of the congregation. In this area we have exactly two distinct windows though which to view the practice of God’s design: one in Acts 15 and the other in 1 Corinthians 14. What we see in each of them implies the above, and is completely foreign to most Christians in our day. The modern concepts of church polity would entirely quench and destroy what we see happening in the assemblies of the early church.
In 1 Corinthians 14 Paul describes, as if in passing, the dynamics of a common assembly of the saints. He says, “If therefore the whole church be come together into one place, and … all prophesy, and there come in one that believeth not, or one unlearned, he is convinced of all, he is judged of all: And thus are the secrets of his heart made manifest; and so falling down on his face he will worship God, and report that God is in you of a truth. How is it then, brethren? When ye come together, every one of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation. Let all things be done unto edifying.” (23-6) When the brothers came together in an assembly they all functioned, they all participated, and they all shared. This dynamic is only possible when they are deferring to one another, and yielding to one another. When the elders and more experienced and seasoned brothers function more as examples, coaches and referees than performers, when all of the men are encouraging one another, listening to one another, challenging one another, and in humility and love inviting others to challenge them, then you have a congregation that is functioning as God would have it. It is not a platform for designated leaders to lecture, but an arena in which all are engaged in an orchestra of spiritual composers … with One unseen directing them. It is the primary channel through which God has chosen to reveal Himself.
The dynamic produced by humble, spirit-lead sharing by a group of men is described above … and we would likely have only one word for it today: Revival! When others come into such meetings from the outside, the un-churched and immature, Paul describes what a common reaction might be: they would fall down on their faces and cry out in worship and awe!
The second window available to us is found in Acts 15, where an early doctrinal crisis in the Church prompted a meeting of the Jerusalem brotherhood. “And certain men which came down from Judaea taught the brethren, and said, ‘Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved.’ When therefore Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and disputation with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question.” (Acts 15:1-2) This was really a very difficult crisis throughout all the churches at this time. How they came together to resolve it is extremely significant.
In the context we actually do find clear references to church leadership playing a key role, but even here we find something very important: the older men of the Jerusalem congregation all worked together to solve the problem, the Apostles blending in right along with all the rest of these elderly men. It is clear then that, prior to this time of crisis, as part of the regular life of the church, the Twelve had brought the older men of the congregation into fully functioning leadership right along with themselves. They were listening to and deferring to one another in the regular dynamics of church life.
In the course of the discussions that followed, as the leaders sought God’s mind together in the crisis, we find an interesting dynamic: each instance of dialogue starts out, “Men and Brothers …” (vs 7, 13), and the speakers were addressing a multitude of men, not a little council. (vs 12). In fact, in the end, the entire church was brought on board and approval sought for the decisions and plans. (vs 22) The entire body of men acted in unison, sending a letter from all of the men to the churches to express their conclusions and encouragement. (vs 23) This looks nothing like our churches today, but much more like an old fashioned American Indian tribe than anything else we would recognize.
What we are actually describing is the release of God’s power through the prayerful, humble interaction of brothers coming together and functioning together in the Spirit. It is this constant practice, the constant prayerful seeking of the movement of the Spirit of God among and through each one of them that brings the men to the place where they can be “an habitation of God through the Spirit.” (Ep 2:22) They are made by the Spirit into an orchestra that regularly comes together in His name and plays together as one before an unseen Conductor. They function as one new man … in worship, in teaching … and in trial.
An integrated band of brothers walking in the spirit together is, it seems to me, the most powerful force on earth. Is it any wonder that the enemy attacked them and quenched them? For it was not long into church history that grievous wolves entered in, not sparing the flock, exalting themselves and silencing their brothers. The enemy has long since quenched and dispersed the men of our congregations. Today our brothers dress up, they come into a man-made sanctuary, they sit down. They stand, they sing, they listen, they donate some money, and then they leave. Nothing eventful ever really happens in such meetings, other than a pastor or an “elder” gets to function on their own for a little bit. This is paltry, stunning, powerless. It has been this way for nearly two millennia, and it has pretty much been that long since the Church functioned at all, since she was strong and vibrant. How shall we return to the former days? How shall we find again her former glory? How shall we release our brothers to function as a spiritual orchestra again, as a team commanded by the heavenly Captain?
Getting There From Here
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if someone could write a manual for us on how to transform a modern day churchy organization into a true church, into an ecclesia, an assembly of the people convened at the public place of the council for the purpose of deliberating? (Strong) Wouldn’t it be convenient to have a step by step, foolproof recipe for success? If there is such a Person who could write such a manual, I expect His name is Jesus Christ. And as far as I know, He hasn’t written one that we would recognize.
Constructing a living organism from scratch is nontrivial at best. Once alive, complex organisms require significant care and attention to bring them to health and maturity. Nursing one on its deathbed back to vibrant health is certainly much easier than creating one, but still beyond the reach of most of us. If you want mechanics, fool-proof instructions for success, you will need to step out of the realm of life. Living things require a life-giving force and energy provided by other living things of the same kind.
There is only one source for this kind of life and power: Jesus Christ. He said, I will build my church. (Mt 16:18) He will do this, and He will do it through people, believers, who are seeking Him.
As believers seeking to love and obey Christ, we do in fact have a kind of manual, the Bible. We also have experience: examples of other brothers who have attempted to build on a biblical foundation, their successes and their failures – wherever we can find them. We also have the Holy Spirit to take these two resources, and to work in us to move from brokenness to health, step by step, according to godly wisdom. I cannot write out a better manual on how to do this, but I do have some suggestions.
If we were to start from scratch, like Jesus did when He came, we might first notice that Jesus started by drawing a core of men together to get to know Him and one another intimately. When Jesus was here, He called twelve men to live together, following Him, listening to Him, beholding Him … for three full years before they began to function as a church. Their backgrounds were very different from each other, as well as their social standing, and their understanding. They seem to have only one thing in common: keen interest in and loyalty to the Jewish Messiah. Their circumstances during this introductory period were quite uncomfortable, and they were often in very real physical danger. They bickered and vied for position, they became angry, they were often confused and dismayed. They experienced each other quite a bit during this time, in many different ways and in a wide range of circumstances, and they got to know one another pretty well. Their desire to be with Jesus was the only thing that kept them together. It is not the way most of us would choose to build a church, but it is God’s way.
A group of likeminded men who are willing to get to know one another and stick together as they pursue God: these are the core ingredients of any true church.
If these men are already in a churchy organization, which may often be the case, then the first thing they need to do is find a way to rid themselves of the churchiness and the organization so that they can begin to function together as equals. Think of the kind of organization that the twelve had as they followed Jesus. There was no formal organization, even when they wanted it. The only encouragement Jesus gave them here was that if they wanted to be the leader then they should take up the towel and offer to be servant to the others. (Luke 22:24-26) Eventually, one of them carried the money bag; that was about it.
In particular, Jesus gave His Apostles very clear warning and direction about how they were to view themselves in the context of church life. But be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren. (Mt 23:8) In contrast to the way that Jewish leadership functioned in the synagogue, the Twelve were not to think of themselves first as leaders, as Apostles, but they were to first view themselves as brothers. Christ never encouraged any of them to rise up above their brothers, or to think of themselves primarily as a leader of the others. This perspective is foundational to the way God wants His church to function.
The Church of Jesus Christ is more than an organization, it is an organism, a living temple. When we think of it like a house, and we consider how to build it, we know at first that we need building material. The church is formed of people: they are the stones, the bricks and framing of the house. Before you think about how to put them together, you need to ensure that you have quality material to work with. Any reasonable organization of good material is surely to turn out better than perfectly organized scrap.
In this analogy, we may find wisdom in seeking that the men forming the core of a church be generally aligned and convinced on the nature of church polity outlined above, as well as on the fundamentals of spiritual life. To be brothers to one another, men must be truly regenerate, genuinely part of God’s family, and disposed to obey what they think to be true: teachable but not gullible, humble but not spineless, assertive but not oppressive. Their purpose in meeting must be to edify and encourage one another to become more and more like Jesus Christ, as He is revealed in the Scriptures. If these basics are not in place, I think all involved are likely doomed both to failure … and to much pain.
There are a thousand ways to go about this, to move from a sickly structure to a healthy one, and most anything that is directionally correct and in accordance with the general principles of wisdom and reason should work out fine. One of the beauties of Scripture is that God does not over-prescribe. His pattern for the church provides the skeletal structure, but how we flesh it out in a particular culture, geography and time is pretty much up to us. If we can see the goal, we can most likely see a couple of steps in front of us that will get us closer to it. One step at a time, prayerfully, is all we need. However, there are some obvious things that may be helpful to notice as we start out.
In reforming any churchy organization into the semblance of a real church, the biggest problem in getting to the desired biblical structure is clearly the non-biblical structure that is already in place. In other words, the biggest problem to overcome is the pastor himself. His very presence, and the view of him that the other brothers in the congregation have been holding about him, and all of the organization and activity that is built around him, is the most significant obstacle to getting brothers to function as equals. In order to move forward with any real progress, the pastor himself needs to find a way to get out of the way, as soon as he can and as wisely as he can, without scattering the other brothers to the wind or allowing them to destroy one another. He needs to gradually take steps to get down from his pedestal, step down from “the pastorate,” get a job like the rest of the brothers, and position himself as one of them as much as he can.
In the vacuum of leadership that is most certain to follow, there is a temptation for another brother to step up and usurp a position of leadership over the church. Anyone attempting to do so should be pulled aside and challenged by a discerning brother or two, or confronted publicly by the men as a whole as it seems fit. Anyone who ends up in such a position correctly is put there by the brothers and recognized by them, not self-appointed.
However, usurping authority is much different than someone naturally filling a role as a servant to the other brothers, whether it be organizing or providing some administrative assistance to help meetings flow more smoothly. What the group must take pains to avoid is any brother taking it upon himself to impose his thoughts and opinions and decisions on the rest of the group, acting unilaterally in any fashion. The brothers must get into the practice of conferring with one another and submitting to one another, praying for God to direct them as a whole, until they are all in agreement.
Needless to say, doing this kind of thing may be more daunting than building from scratch. Putting it in construction terminology, if the foundation and the framing are all wrong, sometimes it’s just easier to bulldoze the entire thing and start over … with dirt.
Next to this, getting rid of the hindrances of the artificial and unbiblical structures among the brothers, the most important thing to do is for the brothers to align themselves on the very purpose of believers meeting together in the first place. In most cases, this will need to be radically rethought.
If the church is meeting together in order to put on a show in order to get more people to sign up with the churchy club and donate money, then this whole paradigm must be promptly scrapped. The believers need to start thinking like a family, and the very last thing you do in a family is invite complete strangers into the midst of it and ask them to start paying some of the bills. You only do this in organizations that are tightly controlled from the top down. The most common name we have for such a group is: cult. But when you have a family you check people out before you invite them into it, and you have family meetings to pursue the family mission, not to entertain outsiders.
Biblically speaking, believers don’t come together to put on a show. They don’t meet together to evangelize, or even to provide a place for people to accept Christ. They don’t meet to perform any kind of “service” for God, or to fulfill any kind of ritualistic obligation of any kind. They don’t see any building as “the house of God,” nor do they come to meetings to get into the presence of God, nor to worship Him. All of these motivations for religious meetings are completely pagan in origin, and they should have nothing to do with the motivation for any believer “going to church.”
Healthy believers worship God as a manner of life … all day, every day. They don’t “go to church” to do it. They walk in and cultivate the presence of God all day long, and worship Him consistently throughout each day. They also evangelize person to person, when God gives them the opportunity, being led by the Spirit: they don’t invite people to meetings and place them under any kind of emotional, manipulative enticement to “make a decision for Christ.” The only “house of God” they know are themselves and other believers, not any building of stone and mortar, nor any special location. They don’t recognize any kind of official or priest that can perform any ritual that will help them spiritually, in any fashion whatsoever.
The reason believers meet together is simple: to encourage one another to be like and follow the Jewish Messiah. (1 Cor 14:26, Heb 10:25) They must recognize (1) that not a single one of them can accomplish this by themselves and (2) that the most important way to do this is by example: each one must be seeking to obey and follow Christ individually in order to benefit the whole. Their sins, ignorance and apathy affect not only themselves but their brothers and sisters as well. Every brother and sister has blind spots, rough edges, and gifts where God enables them to be more Christ-like in some area for the edification of the rest of the Body.
Defining the Church
This purpose of the local Church assembly helps us to define its membership … a non-trivial task in any context since God does not seem to explicitly tell us how to do this. There is an implicit pattern given, but it may not be obvious at first. As a result, churchy organizations have membership roles, and some of the more seriously minded have membership classes to help them sort out who should be in the church and who shouldn’t be. The problem with these methods and systems is that they are non-biblical: there are no concepts like these found in Scripture; they have been developed for organizations bearing little if any resemblance to the biblical concept of a local church.
So how do we go about defining the local assembly of believers? Who are the individuals that we should consider to be members of our local church, the local, physical expression of the Body of Christ? If we don’t have the artificial leadership positions and no membership role, then where are we? Who is allowed to come to meetings? Who is allowed to participate and how? These questions are basic to what we are supposed to be doing, and yet the Bible does not lay it out for us explicitly. However, if we look at the purpose of the local church and how God tells us to handle her difficulties, the answer becomes very clear.
All who come to participate in any formal meeting of the saints should be doing so with this mindset: to fulfill its central purpose by (1) encouraging someone else to be more like Jesus and (2) looking for and accepting this same encouragement from Christ in others. Every believer can actually do both of these things, regardless how mature and experienced they are, and should prepare for each meeting of the saints accordingly. Meetings should be guided by the brothers to flow in a way that enables people to do this in the most effective manner. Anyone who is not already committed to living out this kind of lifestyle in a practical way, seeking to know, love, follow and obey Jesus Christ, should not be coming regularly to any meetings, and every brother who attends a meeting should retain a sense of responsibility for how the meeting goes.
Keeping the Church Pure
Groups of believers functioning like this, effectively making replicas of Jesus Christ on Earth in the power of the Holy Spirit … are incredibly powerful. They are the biggest threat to the enemy, knocking down his gates and spoiling his kingdom at will. (Mat 16:18) The enemy cannot overcome or destroy a church which is consistently operating like this. As Balak found when trying to attack God’s people head on, there is no hope: no power in Heaven or Hell can stand in the way of an army empowered and sustained by God Himself. (Num 22-24) In order to thwart the mission of the Church and protect his territory the enemy must find a way to get God’s people to turn away from obeying God in community together: he must find a way to defeat her from within. (Re 2:14) Since the church has no formal membership role the enemy must plant people in the group to create division, discord and disobedience, and so he does. In any functioning group like this there will be people planted by the enemy to try to corrupt, weaken and destroy it. (Acts 20:29, 2Pet 2:1-3) So one of the primary tasks given to the Church in her mission is to keep herself pure and in the way of God. How is she to do this?
This is evidently no small question, and it is not necessarily easily answered. If we are called to love and pray for all people, including our enemies (Mat 5:44), and we are not to formally judge anyone else (Mat 7:1-5), it is difficult to conceive of a mechanism by which we may rightly refuse to allow any particular individual who earnestly desires to be in the company of God’s people to do so. This leaves God’s people in a bit of a dilemma: if we are not to forcibly exclude anyone from our midst … and the enemy is constantly looking to plant his agents within the church to destroy both it and us, how are we to keep the local church pure?
Christ Himself provides our answer as follows: “Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.” (Mat 18:15-17) Believers expose the enemy by being in such close community with each other that we are able to identify those among us who act like the enemy: as though they do not love Jesus Christ and are not inclined to submit to God and to His ways as a manner of life. When we, as a church body, identify a person as being resistant to God and to His ways, we are to mark them out, distinguish them from the rest of the group, and pray for and admonish them: “And if any man obey not our word by this epistle, note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed. Yet count him not as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother.” (2Th 3:14-15, also Tit 3:10-11) Though this is an imperfect and messy process, God uses it to build His church as only He can.
As the church follows this pattern over time the process itself will tend to weed out non-believers: only believers will generally be inclined to submit to this process and repent when they are wrong, and to also patiently persist in loving others who wrongly accuse themselves, even when they are outnumbered and in the minority and yet believe that they are living rightly. As a pattern of life, only believers will tend to allow themselves to be known and admonished by others in pursuing godliness and holiness in both doctrine and behavior, and also similarly to invest their lives in knowing and encouraging others for the purposes of building God’s kingdom.
However, those living under cover in the assembly for the enemy are not inclined to do this: it is against their entire frame, disposition and constitution. False brothers and sisters are more than happy to attend social gatherings and enjoy the benefits of loving community, to learn the spiritual language and terminology, to study scripture and leverage it to suit their own purposes and desires, and to position themselves as well-respected leaders and teachers. There are many carnal benefits to being in the church which appeal to children of the enemy, but living honestly and openly in community with obedient believers, being accountable to others and obeying and pursuing God together as a manner of life … this is not something the enemy empowers his children to do.
Clearly, building and maintaining the purity of the Church is something that only God Himself can do. There is ultimately only one source for this kind of life and power: Jesus Christ. He said, “I will build my church.” (Mat 16:18) This is actually God’s overarching mission in Creation (Ep 5:26-27), and He invites believers to participate with Him in achieving it: God will do this, and He will do it through imperfect people, believers who are obediently seeking Him and willing to humbly participate with Him in this constant, dynamic cleansing process. For further thoughts here, please see The Greater Sin.
Holding Teachers Accountable
Any teaching given to the church should be aligned with this primary objective: equipping the saints to walk with God. All teaching should be immediately subjected to public critique by all of the men who are present, who should all be willing to carefully evaluate whatever is taught, and either validate or reject it point by point. (1 Cor 14:29) What was presented that helps us in our walks with God, or in our service to each other, or in taking Christ to the world? Each brother should be prepared to promote and encourage the rest of the body to receive and apply anything good that has been presented, and also to point out why the rest should be rejected and forgotten.
Further, any critique offered on the content of any meeting is itself teaching, and is therefore likewise subject to critique by all of the brothers. When a disagreement is evident among the men over a subject that has surfaced, this becomes an opportunity for all to grow and learn in humility and love. The brothers must have a willingness to work through the issues, studying and praying through them, challenging each other and being open to being challenged, fasting when needed, until all of the brothers are aligned. This may take weeks, months, or years, and many topics may be on the table at once. Agreeing to disagree in love is one of the basic lessons that all must learn … unless core values (like justification, sanctification, etc.) are in question.
Women should listen quietly during both teaching and validation, expressing concerns or questions to their husbands (or to other wives, who may in turn ask their husbands) outside of meetings. (1 Cor 14:34-35) The body should generally not act unless there is a significant degree of unity. Any sign of disunity, heresy, offense or discord should be high on the list for the brothers to address and resolve at their earliest opportunity.
If wolves have somehow entered the group who are not aligned on the fundamentals of the faith (Acts 20:29), when core values are not in alignment and are firmly entrenched in a brother, mouths must be stopped. (Acts 15:2, Titus 1:11) If a significant proportion of the assembly becomes divided over fundamental ideas which make fellowship and mutual encouragement tenuous and difficult, it is then time for the group to split along these lines and move on in the courses they each feel called and lead by God.
Building Leaders Through Discipleship
Generally, the elderly men (elders) of the congregation should be esteemed and honored as having more leadership responsibility (1 Tim 5:1) and should tend to take initiative in meetings more freely than the younger men, unless the elders are in open disobedience, in which case there should be public appeals followed by rebukes from the other men as necessary (vs 19, 20). Older men should also generally take the lead in teaching and discipling younger men (1 Peter 5:1-5), training them up in godly behavior so that they are fit for leadership when they are fully mature. Similarly, elder women should disciple the younger women in godly behavior. (Titus 2:3-5)
Women in biblical community do not lead the assembly: in healthy community they don’t even think about it. Even so, some of the more progressive among us will persist, insisting that women belong in leadership roles just like men. They will quote “scholars” who move deftly through some key texts on the subject and re-translate them, presuming that any possible translation not directly contradicting their agenda must be correct, and simply ignore the remaining texts that are impossible to translate per their agenda. The subject is worthy of an entire work in itself, and many good ones have already been written. Suffice it here to say that Paul could have addressed his epistles to the brothers and the sisters: he didn’t. And in the end of all things, the twenty-four names inscribed in the fabric of the New Jerusalem are all masculine: it is no coincidence. Women have a vital role to play in the assembly of the saints, and it is not in leadership.
Any type of official leaders, such as bishops, who would formally represent the congregation to those outside as needs arise, must be selected by the brothers from among themselves based on requirements found in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, and should generally be taken from among the elderly men. In general, bishops should continue to function in the congregation much as brothers, perhaps taking more prominent roles in times of doctrinal crisis, but generally working behind the scenes to encourage, counsel and guide each other and the younger men. In a healthy congregation, one might be in attendance for some time before having a good sense of who these leaders are in the congregation. (Ga 2:6, 9)
The problem of salaried workers in the congregation is not an easy one. Paul teaches us that supporting those who preach the Word has nothing to do with the tithe. Biblically, compensation from the church to those ministering the Word should not be based on the principle of the tithe, but on Deuteronomy 25:4: “Thou shalt not muzzle the ox that treadeth out the corn. And, The labourer is worthy of his reward.” (1 Tim 5:17-18) This support is a voluntary donation made to those who are teaching the Body by those who are blessed and encouraged by such teaching.
Especially in western societies, it seems wise to avoid creating salaried positions that enable others to milk the church through their spiritual gifts. Those with the gift of teaching should generally be in some kind of rotation, bringing special messages to the assembly as lead by the Spirit, and should not therefore need an entire work week to prepare such messages. When the brothers are working together in unity and sharing the load of leadership, it would seem that in most congregations that paid leadership positions would not be necessary. Based on the example of the Apostle Paul, in contexts where men are reasonably enabled to provide for their families and yet have significant remaining free time to devote to doctrinal study and ministry, financial support should generally be reserved for taking care of the poor, and for supporting missionaries working in lands where they are much less able to provide for themselves due to the intensity and nature of their work in that foreign culture.
Once our eyes are open to the reality of church life, once we begin to understand how God intended for His Church to function, it is difficult, if not impossible, to go back to our old ways. God’s plan is so vastly superior to what Man has invented that returning to a typical church service after having tasted spiritual community is enough to make one moan and weep. We can no longer be satisfied with such emptiness.
The biblical witness is so startlingly clear we might only wonder why it took us so long to see it. Our dullness speaks volumes to how desperately we need each other, and how easy it is to read our Bibles with colored lenses. It is amazing how the lies of the enemy can so fully precondition even the best of us that we can be ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.
Now, like the US Marines, we are looking for a few good men. May God bring us together in genuine spiritual community again, as He did in days of old. As we do come together, experimenting and exploring, perhaps the following resources may be helpful: Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic, Life Together; Jon Zens: The Pastor Has No Clothes.
Finally, I hope that Gene Edwards’ insights in When The Church Was Lead Only By Laymen are as helpful to others as they have been to me.
There are certainly many difficult details remaining for us to work through as we pursue God’s design for His Church; we certainly have much to learn as we do. I hope that what I have contributed here is useful, and that many rich spiritual communities will be nourished and encouraged in the days ahead.
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